Book Of A Lifetime: The Waves, By Virginia Woolf

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The Independent Culture

"'Like' and 'like' and 'like' – but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?'" How do words relate to the world? What is constant in the flux of identity? How do we know ourselves and each other, how do we understand a moment or a life in those terms?

The Waves is Virginia Woolf's "play-poem", as she called it; a colloquy of six voices. It is about both continuity and difference, about both the instability and constancy of the self and of friendship: "We come up differently, for ever and ever." It is a record of six characters' "attempts to say 'I am this, I am that'"; but it is also a testament to their shared identity.

There is an almost conventional narrative arc here, tracing their intertwined lives from childhood, through the first recognition of individuality, on to adolescence, adulthood, middle age; they meet, part, become lovers, parents; they age, they mourn. But the work (and the depiction of friendship) is structured less around plot than it is bound together by rhythms and images that recur across all six voices: a fin, far out to sea; bubbles rising; silver fish; images of circles and of bars, the collective and the "I... I..." that resounds throughout, echoing the waves as they rise from the ocean and pound on the shore. It may be that Woolf speaks through Bernard, towards the end of the novel, when she writes "How impossible to order them rightly; to detach one separately, or to give the effect of the whole – [...] like music".

But it may be that Woolf succeeds where Bernard fails, by attending to that music, by allowing that simultaneity; the six are forever isolated, alone, and yet forever knotted together by the "wandering thread" of their collective experience, realised through the poetry of the prose, "lightly joining one thing to another".

I first read this book at the age of perhaps 16; I had heard it was the hardest of Woolf's novels and, wilful as I was, decided that this was the place to start on her oeuvre. In the intervening years, for academic reasons and for pure, unbridled, envious pleasure, I have read, I believe, everything that she wrote. These are among the precious books that another copy can never replace – dog-eared, bath-crinkled, emphatically asterisked, underlined, full of marginalia (occasionally insightful, often illegible). And of them all, my copy of The Waves is the most scarred in this way; as a reader, as a writer, I constantly return, for the lyricism of it, the melancholy, the humanity. The nature of the self, the mediation of the world in words, the way in which the two are inextricable; these are the concerns I return to again and again. "The thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing"; "I need a little language such as lovers use"; there are phrases here that wash up on the shore of my distracted mind repeatedly, a part of my own internal rhythm, coming up differently each time.

Amy Sackville's 'The Still Point' (Portobello) has been longlisted for the Orange Prize